The Force Awakens

Michigan dominates Penn State 42-7 to go to 8-1 overall and 6-0 in the Big Ten.

Photo: Matt Vailliencourt
"There's been an awakening. Have you felt it?"

Wisconsin felt it. Michigan State felt it. And now Penn State has felt it.

Something very special is happening with the Michigan Football program. It's normal to try and compare this team with other great standout teams in Michigan's past. The 1997 or 2006 teams come to mind with their dominating defenses. Even 2016 comes to mind. What I think separates this team from those, and makes them hard to compare, is not just one or two things. It's an attitude. It's a feeling you get when you see this defense on the field, or see Shea Patterson drop back in the pocket or execute the zone-read down by the goal line.

What began as the "revenge tour" has now turned into complete domination in the three marquee games in the middle of Michigan's schedule that featured opponents which beat Michigan last year. A schedule that pundits claimed would be too much for this team to handle. This team is on a mission to right the wrongs of a year ago...maybe even right some wrongs from years before as well. Either way, there is a motivation there that no Michigan team, at least in my memory, has ever had. And for the 3 remaining teams on Michigan's regular season schedule, especially Ohio State, that is a concerning prospect.

I've been very reluctant to get too excited or too hyped about this season because I knew this tough 3-game stretch was going to test this team. But seeing how Michigan has responded to this test has told me everything I need to know. This team is driven by something maybe no other Michigan team has ever been. Revenge. And not just revenge in one or two games...but revenge for an entire season...maybe even going back to the end of avenge the 8 losses this team sustained in that time. 8 losses that made critics and even some fans question this program, the coaching, the players...all of it.

Now, Michigan sits at 8-1, with their only loss coming to an undefeated Notre Dame by 7 on the road in the opener. When the new CFB playoff rankings come out this week, Michigan will rise up to #4 after the loss by LSU to Alabama last night. Of course, there's still business to be done, Michigan can't let up off the gas by any means, but everything is right there for this team to take.

This defense is incredible. Simply incredible. You want to talk about a group that is motivated, this defense plays every down like it's 3rd down. I've seen some impressive defenses over the year in Ann Arbor, but never have I seen one play more motivated and with more aggression than this one.

Trace McSorley is a gamer and a true threat to run and throw. He'd been averaging over 77 yards per game on the ground this year. He finished with -6 yesterday. He'd been averaging over 203 yards per game through the air this year. He finished with 83 yesterday. Starting running back Miles Sanders was averaging just over 100 yards per game this year. He finished with 14 yards on 7 carries.

This was complete domination.

One of Penn State's biggest threats was KJ Hamler...who's name was only called when Kirk or Fowler were trying to suggest how dangerous he was on kick returns. Other than that, he was silent. 1 catch for 20 yards and two kick returns for 30.

As a team, Michigan held Penn State to just 186 total yards...273 yards below their season average of 459. All of the numbers from yesterday are incredible. Rushing yards...68 down from 225. Passing yards...118 down from 234. But for me, the biggest stat was 2 for 11 on 3rd downs. That's the killer. For Michigan, this is one of the most telling stats. The last 3 games tell the story.

#15 Wisconsin: 2 for 11
#24 Michigan State: 0 for 12
#14 Penn State: 2 for 11

Overall, in these 3 very critical games, teams were a combined 4 for 34 on 3rd down...a conversion rate of roughly 11.6%. That, my friends, is insane.

After the game it was reported that Dylan McCaffrey suffered a broken collarbone during late mop up duty. This really sucks. We'll see how this looks going forward, but you have to think this is probably it for McCaffrey this season.

James Franklin. Everything about him is odd to me. His coaching style, his grasp of game theory...his post-game press conference demeanor after getting pummeled...the guy is just weird.

There were a number of questionable in-game decisions by Franklin yesterday. The decision to call a timeout on 4th and long before a punt, I assume because the game clock was running down, and then not to call a timeout to force the refs to take another look at the ball placement after the slide by McSorely on Penn State's second drive at a critical point in the game. To me, it looked like he made the first down, but there was no review.

Another head scratcher came at 6:52 in the 2Q after the Michigan touchdown by DPJ. On the ensuing kickoff, Michigan was offside and also kicked the ball out of bounds. Instead of taking the ball at the 35...10 yards ahead of their average starting field position in this game, Franklin opted for Michigan to rekick to give his returner KJ Hamler a chance to make a big play. He did not. Instead Penn State began that drive at the 23 yardline.

I did not understand at all the decision to flip flop quarterbacks throughout the second half. I get it if one guy isn't playing well or is hurt, by all means put in the backup. But to constantly keep flipping from McSorley and Stevens was not how you come back from being down 3 scores. I'll grant you, Stevens is a dangerous runner who gashed Michigan on a few plays...led the team in rushing with 52 yards...but the pick 6 on his first throw was just another nail in Penn State's coffin that McSorley would not have thrown.

Offense: Shea Patterson
This kind of game is why Shea Patterson is so important to this offense. He just makes things happen. For the game, he was 11 of 17 for 144 yards and 2 touchdowns. He also added another one on the ground in Michigan's impressive 8-run opening drive. When they got down to the goal line, Michigan brought FB Ben Mason in (to a huge cheer from the crowd)...but Shea pulled the handoff back and kept it for the easy walk-in touchdown...another wrinkle of this offense crafted from weeks of Patterson not keeping the ball.

There were a couple of plays I think Shea would like back...the screen to Higdon which was probably 6 points. And the short dump off to Evans in the 3Q when I think Grant Perry was wide open further downfield. But overall, what Patterson brings to this offense is a sense of calm and control. That's really what Michigan's offense is all about...ball control. Michigan wants to grind defenses down but still have the threat to put up a big play. That's what Patterson offers you...what he's best at.

Defense: Chase Winovich
He's the heart and soul of Michigan's defense and definitely the MVP of this big 3 game stretch if not the entire season. He finished this game credited with only 2 tackles and 1 sack...but I certainly feel like he did more than that. The way this defense plays, especially up front, it's hard to equate impact to stats. Guys like Chase, Gary, Uche, Paye, Kemp, Mone...all of them do more than what they are credited for.

Special Teams: Donovan Peoples-Jones
DPJ had a solid day returning punts. Penn State punted a lot too. But in a game when Michigan didn't punt much and only one field goal was attempted (and blocked), DPJ was a spark at times with two returns for 54 yards.

Coaching: Don Brown

I don't know what else I can say. He made Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State (among other teams on the schedule) look like dumpster fires. The pass rush is the difference for me. You can have guys like Devin Bush and Khalik Hudson and Tyree Kinnel and David Long...but it's the guys up front, the Don Brown guys, that really make this defense what it is. Teams just have no chance to get things going because run lanes disappear and pockets don't exist. Don Brown says "Solve your problems with aggression" and that's a mantra that has been ingrained in the minds of everyone on the defensive side of the ball. In year 3 in Ann Arbor, he's built a culture of dominant play that we've never seen before.

Honorable mention: Karan Higdon, Chris Evans, DPJ, Zach Gentry, Nico Collins, Josh Uche, Devin Bush, Khaleke Hudson, Tyree Kinnel, Brandon Watson, David Long, Will Hart

2018 Game Ball Standings:
1. Shea Patterson (3), Chase Winovich (3), Donovan Peoples-Jones (3), Don Brown (3), Karan Higdon (3), Will Hart (3)
2. Offensive Line (2), Josh Metellus (2), Ed Warriner (2), Khaleke Hudson (2)
3. Quinn Nordin, Devin Bush, Greg Mattison, Jim Harbaugh, Rashan Gary, Jim McElwain

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